An Enlightening New Year

Today is the last day of the year. One of my goals for the new year is to pay more attention. As a novelist, it’s my job to pay more attention. But the task of paying attention in general can be daunting and over-stimulating. So much noise and busyness. Is this what I should pay more attention to?

No, I decided, I need to pay more attention to the natural world around me. What time did the sun come up today?  Or did it ever come up?  Was there wind or clouds today?  What about this parking lot I have parked in, does it have any birds in it?  And what is that flower bush with the fragrant white flowers? It’s grounding, not only for a novelist, but for everyone.

American-RobinThe American Robin, pictured here, is a good example. Look at this bird. Who knew robins were so beautiful?  That distinct eye ring and bright clay-colored breast make him look so dapper. You can see there are not many berries left on the toyon branch because he has just made a hardy meal of them; only a few berries remain, behind his body. Even his posture is perceptive, so sharp and alert. He’s in the thrush family, the same family as the bluebird. Most Americans know the robin, but do they know what an exquisite creature it is?

Where I live, in California, the winter boasts an abundance of robins. West coasters, Floridians, and some residents on the south gulf coast of the U.S. have the winter delight of the American Robin throughout the winter. The birds migrate here where the winter temperatures are more mild. Yesterday I looked up into the sky on two different occasions and I counted at least 100 robins. The sky was awash with robins.

What a glorious sight, especially when the sun is shining, to look up and see all those orange-breasted birds traversing the sky. If it is near dusk, the lower sun lights up each robin breast and turns it into a bright red beacon. They fly slightly apart from each other and do not flap in unison, and as a result they spread across the sky in huge flocks. They roost in large flocks at night, so you often see them in the early morning or at dusk in these abundant flocks.

Even if you’re not looking up at the moment, you can often hear one or two, and that is the indication that the sky may be full. They have a sort of chuckle sound, tut tut tut. Another sound is similar to a horse whinny. They often sound to me like they’re laughing. This makes me smile. The robin also has an incredibly fluid and melodious song, but we don’t usually hear that in the winter because they’re not in their breeding mode, not focusing on being attractive to a mate. Even when they’re not in the big flocks, you can hear them. I’ve heard them in many parking lots, on busy street corners, parks, urban streets.

In California there is a large part of the human population that has also migrated here from other parts of the United States. We were taught from a young age that seeing the first robin is the sign of spring. And it is, if you’re in the eastern United States or Midwest or the Rockies. But this is simply not true if you live where the robin spends its winter. And yet many people who live on the west coast, where robins absolutely fill the winter sky, still believe that the robin is only here in the spring.

I know this about robins because I am a birder and I have studied birds. But there must be so many of these myths that I am misinformed about, still adhere to, simply because I am not paying attention.

My new year, this wonderful chance to live more days on this plentiful and incredible planet, is going to be about paying attention to the natural surroundings. These are things that literally ground us, help us to come out of our busy minds and pay attention to what is going on right here and now. It ensures a slower and more sure step. It helps you to take an extra moment to let that car back out of the parking space, look both ways before stepping off the curb, give an old woman pushing a walker a little more space. Alleviate the rush…listen for a thrush. And have an enlightening new year!

Money is Money

AustralianMoneyMoney is a sacred topic. Those of us who are lovers of life, we value many meaningful aspects of living; and we don’t always like to think of money as sacred. But there is no denying that it is an important part of living, especially during this time of the year when gift giving is part of the holiday season.

If you have ever traveled to a foreign country, you are immediately faced with new currency, and its value, when your jet lands. It may not look like your valued money, but it is, and the sooner you adapt, the better off you’ll be. That goes for any part of the culture change:  the sooner you adapt the better.

I like to write books in different places around the world and share the many wonders of the world with my readers. Prior to my first trip to Australia, I thought it would be a fairly similar sort of place as America. English is the dominant language, they also have dollar currency, I assumed it would be similar enough that I would figure it out and slip into the culture pretty quickly. Australia is not similar to America. The first indication of this different way of Aussie life was within the first half hour after landing. Still in the Sydney airport, I went to the bathroom. At the risk of being a bit intimate here, when I closed my stall door I was surprised to see printed advertisements everywhere on the door and walls. I was glad I could read the language, but when I read the ads, I was even more shocked. The ads were all about diarrhea. And they were tactless, gross ads. Okay, got it, not in America.

The next stop:  the ATM.

Sometimes when you’re travelling in a foreign country, even though they have a different currency, the American dollar is still acceptable. This depends on the country as well as the current value. In some places the American dollar is a popular item on the black market, so you can pay for things with the local currency or the American currency. (And on an aside note, in some countries where they take the American dollar, they will only take the bills if they are free of folds, tears, and markings. To us, the dollar is a dollar. To them, no matter how much explaining you do, if the bill has a tear or too many folds, they won’t take it.)

In Australia, all they deal with is Australian currency. This was a gleeful experience at the ATM because the money popping out of that slot was absolutely beautiful.

When you are in another country and it’s no longer your greenbacks, it takes on the curious feel of play money. As you might imagine, this is a dangerous feeling. Australian currency especially looks like play money because it is in pastel colors. There’s something airy and less serious about pastel-colored money; pastels seem more appropriate for baby clothes, not money.

Their bills feature many heroes. Queen Elizabeth II, their queen, stands out as someone we readily recognize (on the pink five pictured here). The other bills in this image feature such Australian heroes as David Unaipon on one side of the $50, an Aboriginal writer and inventor, and on the other side of the 50 is Edith Cowan, the first woman elected to Parliament and an advocate for women’s rights. Also pictured here on the 20 is Reverend John Flynn who founded The Flying Doctor (medical services for rural areas) and on the 10 is the poet Banjo Paterson (who wrote “Waltzing Matilda”).

Except for the Queen, all the people on these bills are strangers to a foreigner. Strange faces and a rainbow of pastels, yep, looking like play money. But there’s more. The money feels different, it’s slippery. There are also little shiny spots and the bills are so clean. What makes the bills so clean and slippery is that they are not paper.

We have some natty bills in America. People write on them, fold them into mini hats and rings. The bills get worn and torn, tattered. They are paper, fibrous, and it wears down after it has passed through several thousand hands.

The Australian dollars are actually made of plastic. They are made of a polymer blend that helps with the note’s longevity as well as counterfeiting. They have a slickness to their feel, and are also less rumpled.

Besides the bills, there are also coins. The small coin with the 2 on it pictured here, is counter-intuitively the more highly valued coin at two dollars. The bigger coin next to it is a one dollar value. Big coin has less value than the little coin, and slippery, shiny pastel dollar bills. You see why this seems like pretend money to a foreigner.

It’s not cool to get a bundle of money out of the ATM and then start jumping up and down with fistfuls of money because it’s so unusually beautiful. We tuck it quickly into pockets so we don’t look like the goofy tourists that we are. But when in the privacy of the hotel room, we spread it out on the desktop, study it, take pictures.

The money value in the big worldly picture is another story. The American dollar and its value is currently a troubled topic. But today is Christmas Eve. Even our president is vacationing right now. So we won’t talk about the value of any money for today. We’ll just marvel at the beauty of the Australian money and revel in diversity. Best wishes, mate.

A Few of Our Favorite Things

This time of year is especially steeped in old and new traditions celebrating religious deities, mid-winter rituals, and honoring our heroes past and present. We join with our loved ones, in our homes, in our communities, and revel.

Admittedly, I get annoyed with the crass commercialization that currently exists. As an American I sometimes feel steeped (and am) in a massive swirl of junk and nonsense. But I try hard to overlook this and take pleasure instead in the humble sweetness of being alive on planet earth.

Last night our 7 year old neighbor friend came over for a playdate to have dinner and open a few presents. He came over very excited and lovable, with his backpack filled with things to show us:  a pint container filled with stones and rocks to look at with his magnifying glass, a yellow plastic gun filled with mini marshmallows that he shot against a target we concocted, a bag of marshmallows (of course), a very cool thing called a beyblade that was a flashy version of a spinning top, and his finger flashlight for the walk home. We didn’t talk about Santa (do we have to lie to celebrate?) but we had a great and wild time, and sweet moments. He sang Feliz Navidad, one of the songs he performed that day for the school program.

I like humans a lot, they’re my species. I also like many other mammals and animals of all sorts, and I go to them in my mind when I am overwhelmed with humans. It was the Australian bowerbird who came to mind recently one busy Wednesday as I stood in line at Target.

My current book is set in Australia, so I have spent a lot of time studying and visiting Australia. Their bowerbirds are fascinating. There are eight or so different kinds of bowerbirds and they all build their bowers  differently, and then each individual adds their own special decorative touches.

The actual bower is a grassy structure made of sticks and grass, and the size and shape varies depending on the bowerbird species and location.  It is a stage they build, to attract a mate. The bower bird is especially fascinating because of what they do to decorate their bower. There is nothing quite like it on this earth.

BowerWhat you see in this photo is the beginning of a satin bowerbird bower we found when we were birdwatching in the rainforest one day. It is absolutely crazy to come across something like this in the forest. You’re hiking through a smelly, dripping rainforest that is completely devoid of humans, it is entirely organic and non-human.  Climbing over huge slimy downed trees, you’re focused on avoiding thick streams of ant armies and intimidated by the cacophony of squawking and cackling. And then you come across something like this that is a massive mess of human debris. It looks like trash. Your first thought would be “Gross” except that all the “trash” is in one color. Bic pens, colored clothespins (called “pegs” in Australia), plastic straws, cigarette wrappers, bits of balloon, feathers—all in blue. What the….?

This is the proud estate of a male satin bowerbird.

These incredible birds build structures far taller than themselves and painstakingly collect all the most beautiful baubles they can find from all over their kingdom. So I think about this in that long line at the checkout, I look into the carts of my fellow humans to see what baubles they are transporting from this big, red empire to their own proud estates.

We like to share our beautiful things with one another and rejoice in our community. The satin bowerbird dazzles a future mate with exotic blue items, our little friend carries his special prizes on his back to entertain his friends. What a wonderful thing.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

This star is an outdoor dShooting-Star_BTPhelanecoration we put up for the holidays. Only one other family sees it because we live at the end of the road in a forest. But it is a welcome sight to all 5 of us on a foggy, rainy night. At night it shines into both the kitchen and bedroom windows, and throughout the past weeks it started me thinking about all the aspects of a star. I like to do the New York Times crossword puzzles. The nature of crosswords is to think about all the many connotations for one word. So I’ve been thinking about the word “star.”

My first book came out exactly one month ago, so I have been thinking about what it is to be a star. I wander around in the book store, looking at the back of the books, studying author photos. The rest of the store is bustling with holiday traffic and big strollers that fill the little aisles…and there I am gazing at a photo of Patricia Cornwall, wondering what it must be like to have sold so many, many books. What would it be like to be a famous star?

At this point in my life I have sold more books, and gained more readers, than ever before. I am very happy about this. But what would it be like to be a star, like Patricia Cornwall?  Some variation of this thought touches most writers’ and artists’ minds. It is a big step to take your sacred art and put it out for all the world to see, admire and…argh…criticize.

So I was running errands downtown this week when an old woman stepped into the street and flagged me down. She didn’t look deranged or vicious, so I stopped.

She asked, “Can you give me a ride to Safeway?”

This old woman is hitching a ride?  I have family and friends who are advanced seniors now, and I know this woman has got to be in her 80s. Wondering if she was in her right mind, I questioned, “Which Safeway?”

She pointed to the one that was only about six blocks away, so I said, “Sure.”  I pulled over to the side of the road and waited for her to hop in.

For one thing, I drive a 4WD pick-up truck and it’s high off the ground. For another thing, octogenarians don’t hop.

I don’t know this woman so even though it is instinctual for me to get out and help her, I also understand I probably shouldn’t give her a two-handed butt heft like I would my mother or mother-in-law. Standing on the running board, she finds the ceiling handle for assistance. But she’s not strong enough to pull herself up with one hand. She sets down her really big purse on the car floor, tries with both hands.

Darn, she’s caught on her coat. The problem is her little rear end is getting pinched in the coat before she can get it into the car seat. After three failed attempts to get on the seat she says, “Why don’t I hold myself up, and you pull the coat out from underneath me.”  I do this, and ta-da, she lands on the seat. We take off. I always drive slower with octogenarians, it seems to be less nerve-wracking for them.

“I don’t usually do this” she starts, “but my friend just called. She’s had an accident. I’m meeting her at Safeway.”

Just a minute ago I was rockin’ out, singing along to Airborne Toxic Event, headed for the party store to get some holiday decorations. It’s quiet now and I’m driving slowly with a fragile old woman in my passenger seat. My thought is, I don’t usually do this either.

I say, “Oh that’s too bad.”

“Some people” she said, “they just don’t think.”

I think about this.

Then I laugh and say, “That’s true. Some people” I laughed some more, “they really just don’t think.”  She laughed. We both had a few loud guffaws, this old woman and me, laughing about how ridiculous things can be.

Her phone rang. It was in that capacious bag at her feet. She moved so slowly that by the time she got to her phone it had stopped ringing. But soon it rang again. “I’m only a block away” she said into the phone, “I’ll be there soon.”

And soon we were there. As we drove through the parking lot to the front entrance, she thanked me several times. “I can just get out here” she said. It was still 20 paces from the front door and I guessed this would take her a long time to traverse. “Oh no” I said, “I can take you to the door.”  And I did.

She made her way out of the truck. Had a good long rest on the running board and lowered herself down to the pavement, waved, thanked me again, and we parted.

I thought about all this later, when I was home. It would have taken her hours to get down to the Safeway if I hadn’t picked her up. I don’t even know if she would have made it. It was six big city blocks and she was so frail and so slow. It was a good thing she found me, and not some crazy desperado who easily could have taken her purse, or worse, hurt her.

I thought to myself, I think I was a star today.

Plotting Plots

This photo is a good demonstration of what my brain looks like when I’m Imagecreating the plots to my novels. Oh sure, it looks like a string of Christmas tree lights, but it’s also a mass of crisscrossing synapses at work during my plot plotting time.

I enjoy the challenge of plotting mystery novels, but it certainly is not easy. There has to be the obvious, of course, the murder of one or more characters in the book. But there also has to be a lot of suspicious characters, red herrings or false clues to the murder, and then the strategic placement of various mystery clues. Add to that the imperative envelopment of each character’s point of view regarding the murder, and the plot literally thickens.

For instance if the housewife suspects the mailman, I have to get into the mind of the housewife and the mailman. I need to keep track of what the housewife thinks, how she reacts to the mailman, and then, just as importantly, what she knows about the murder and the mailman. Then the mailman, too, because he is a character he has a stake in all of this, so I need to relay what he knows about the murder, and how he reads or does not read the reaction of the housewife toward him.

Of course there are more than just two characters involved in a good mystery, so it will naturally get more complicated with each new character. Then there is another layer, and it is the important layer of The Reader.

I have an allegiance to my readers, every novelist does. In mystery novels the author has to be aware at all times of what the reader knows, and then bring them along gradually, informing them of developments. It is unfair to involve your reader in a mystery without giving them clues and ways to solve the murder. Agatha Christie, who is one of my heroes, sometimes wrote mysteries in which the reader could not possibly have figured out the murderer. Long lost cousin inherits and we don’t know this person, or his motive, until the last few chapters. That’s not fair. I give Agatha Christie a lot of room on that, however, because she was great and there’s always a lot to learn from her regardless of a few shortcomings. Also, this unwritten fairness rule is a more modern aspect of mystery writing that was less pronounced in her day.

But here we are in the end of 2012 and it’s not cool to fool your reader. So I think about all of this as I sit at my desk, crowded in the empty room with a lot of fictional characters yakking away at me. Everyone wants to be a star.

As one does with a tangle of Christmas light strands, I unwind what I can, follow the leads when they present themselves, and plod through the confusion with patience. When it all gets really mind-boggling, I get up from the desk and fill my water glass; take a new, fresh drink on the situation and wait for clarity.

Cockatoos

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos

The first time we saw these sulphur-crested cockatoos we were on a highway heading for the Blue Mountains for a day hike.  We had left the bustle of Sydney and noticed some birds in the grass on the side of the road. They were grazing in green grass, and there were two or three dozen of them. In America birds don’t ordinarily graze in grass, that’s what cows do in our country. We were thrilled when we identified what they were, and saw them throughout the day in large flocks. This particular species is also what became famous on the old 1970s TV show Baretta. The detective Baretta (Robert Blake) had a pet cockatoo named Fred. (This little factoid seems to resonate with non-birders.) You’ll also read about them in Wicked Walkabout, my mystery novel set in Australia.

Later that same morning we were hovering over post cards in this funny little small town post office. The post cards were birds. What else would birders look at in a post office?  We were marveling at the bird photos when this Australian woman approached us. “Into berds, are ye?”  She was a very old, bent woman with a strong voice. We nodded, and then she went on to tell us where we could find a rare bird.

Well-intentioned people who want to be helpful in our bird quests often tell us this. It’s a warm effort, but it doesn’t usually pan out to be much of a rare bird sighting. But then she told us the name of the bird and we said, “What?  The Gang-gang Cockatoo?”  Tell us more.

She told us exactly where to go to see a pair of these definitely rare birds. Drive through this town, then that town, up this mountain road…off we went. Turned out it was an old tram station in the mountains that had fallen into disrepair, but they still had an operating gift shop and bird feeders. These are my favorite kinds of places to find. They’re totally local, and funky, not gimmicky or touristy, and you tend to see all kinds of interesting characters in these places.

We found the bird feeders and patiently waited below one of the big tram support beams. Many colorful birds were coming in and out of the feeders; it was a flurry of neon colors, large parrots, and much squawking.

After about five minutes of watching, the pair of Gang-gang cockatoos came in. Regal birds, and so big! 12 or 14 inches tall, the size of hawks in our country. They had such an elegant gray body and this shockingly scarlet head. We stayed for about an hour, observing, photographing, enjoying, and then we were on our way.